Capital Beat: Lawmaker pushes for voting day holiday

  • Concord city worker Ed Bisson works on putting the voting booths together for the primary election at the Green Street gymnasium on Monday, September 10, 2018.

Monitor staff
Published: 2/9/2019 1:57:12 PM

It’s practically an Election Day tradition: hundreds of thousands of Granite Staters swarming the polls on their way home from work.

But one Democratic representative is hoping to cut down on the stress with a statewide holiday that would give any employee time to cast to their vote.

At a hearing Thursday, Newmarket Rep. Ellen Read pressed for House Bill 506, which would create a legal holiday for state primary and general election voting days.

“We have a holiday for the Fourth of July for the founding of our country. . . . We have a day for the people who have fought and died for our democracy on Memorial Day and Veterans Day,” Read said. “All these things that celebrate things that we value. But we don’t actually take off the actual day where we actually do the democracy, where we actually have a voice in self-government.”

The bill would give the day off to state employees, including cities, towns, school districts, and public colleges and universities, but would allow poll workers and essential government workers to continue working.

The legislation would also require private employers to allow up to three hours for their employees to cast ballots “when practicable.”

Read said the bill – which would be the first state law of its kind in the nation if passed – would increase turnout and encourage more Granite Staters to engage in the political process. A representative from the state’s teachers’ union, NEA-NH agreed, arguing it would help ease the burden on school districts that juggle the interests of voters and students for polls in school buildings.

The bill mirrors an effort in Congress to establish a federal Election Day holiday as part of House Democrats’ election law overhaul legislation, H.R. 1, as well as a standalone measure submitted by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Read pointed to lagging turnout in the U.S. compared to other countries – only 56 percent voted nationally in the 2016 election, according to the Pew Research Center – and said most democratic countries already hold elections on weekends or holidays.

But some representatives raised concern that the proposal could cost taxpayers money through added holiday pay requirements for essential workers, and would squeeze school districts who would have to find a way to make up the teaching hours.

Rep. Terry Roy, a Deerfield Republican, raised the prospect that the law could cost taxpayers “to the tune of millions of dollars” if firefighters and police were paid holiday time.

“It just has a lot of unintended consequences beyond just the schools,” he said.

Read brushed off the concern, pointing to a fiscal analysis by the Department of Administrative Service that said the bill would not impact payroll expenditures.

NEA-NH Executive Director Rick Trombly, meanwhile, argued that any potential costs were surpassed by the benefit of more people casting a vote.

“When you make a decision as a Legislature to open up the participation of citizens to be active in their own self-government and democracy, what that dollar sign is is not as significant as the value of people doing that,” he said.

The bill will likely be taken up for executive action by the Executive Departments and Administration Committee next week.

Unwelcome surprises

This week brought the State of the Union, and with it the annual ritual of symbolic guests from members of Congress. New Hampshire’s Democratic delegation didn’t hold back on selecting statement-making guests, from Rep. Chris Pappas’s invitation to transgender Navy veteran Tavion Dignard, to Rep. Annie Kuster’s invitation to Jeff Aulbach, a New Hampshire air traffic controller who went without pay during last month’s government shutdown.

For Sen. Maggie Hassan, the choice to invite Donna Beckman highlighted a policy priority as she nears the halfway point of her first term: surprise medical bills. In 2017, Beckman received a $1,600 bill after showing up to the emergency room – despite the hospital being covered under her insurance plan.

The hospital had used an out-of-network physician from a staffing agency, but Beckman had been unaware of the potential charge when she consented to the treatment. The bills were retracted, but only after months of fighting and complaining, Beckman says.

It’s an experience she fears could ensnare others – and potentially scare them away from heading to the ER in the first place.

“It is a fight, and it does take a lot,” Beckman said ahead of the speech Tuesday night. “And it takes a lot of persistence and tenacity. Some people are so desperate that they can’t reconcile what’s happening.”

Last year, New Hampshire passed a law that would prohibit surprise bills, or balance billing, for certain procedures and require hospitals and insurers to work out extra costs without charging the patient. Hassan is seeking to address the policies federally, through her No More Surprise Medical Bills Act of 2018.

“I hope that on a national level this gets resolved,” Beckman said.

Plans belabored

Late in the gubernatorial election cycle last year, Gov. Chris Sununu assembled a commission with a flashy title: “Save our Summers.”

The commission, which included representatives for school districts and businesses, was charged with exploring a new law to force schools to start after Labor Day. Summer recreation businesses said they were losing significant revenue due to workforce shortages near the end of August, and pointed to recent shifts across the state to move the calendar earlier.

But the effort received a setback last week after the Senate Education Committee voted 5-0 to kill a bill that would bring it to fruition. The hitch? Local control.

“I think at the end, we just decided that it really should be a local issue,” Sen. Ruth Ward, a Republican of Stoddard, said, citing opposition from school districts and teachers’ unions.

That bill moves to the Senate floor this week on the consent calendar. But its prospects are strongly diminished.

Flying solo

It came as a surprise to many. Sununu’s four-day trip to Dubai for a world conference this weekend came to reporters’ attention just 24 hours before the governor left. The occasion, a world economic forum, and the accompaniment – Manchester entrepreneur Dean Kamen – left plenty to scratch heads about.

Even more surprising: Sununu’s traveling partners, or lack thereof. The governor took no security and no staff members along with him, he confirmed Thursday.

Aides to the governor were quick to assure reporters that Sununu would still be carrying out the duties of his office remotely, and that the travel was being financed by the event –the World Economic Forum – and not by taxpayers. Few additional details have been provided.

But to understand the peculiar arrangements, some history may be helpful. A 2014 trip by Sununu’s predecessor, Maggie Hassan, ignited intense partisan criticism.

In that case, the $15,000 trade trip to Turkey came out of pre-budgeted travel funds within the Department of Resources and Economic Development. But its occurrence in the midst of a travel freeze on state employees brought on by dwindling revenues created an optical headache that followed Hassan into her re-election campaign.

Sununu is keeping a lower profile, keeping away even family members. “Just as governor,” he said of the traveling while on his way out the door Thursday.

The purpose and nature of the five-day trip, meanwhile, remain a mystery.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at 369-3307, edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)




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